A week ago I was walking through the Native Plant Area with my camera and tripod, and one of the preschool teachers who had her group there asked me whether I’d seen the osprey that were eating squirrels in the trees there. I hadn’t. I hung around a bit, but saw nothing. In the following days, two separate friends said that an unidentified bird or birds of prey were active in the area, but nobody had got a photo or even a clear look for an ID.
This Tuesday we had a bright morning sun for a change, and I ventured to the area to try my luck. I chose a spot with a clear view of the big cypress trees on the north side of the area. Another preschool teacher had her class there. She said her group were on that spot four days a week and she saw the bird every time, and it was there right now in the tree. She walked under the tree and pointed straight up.
It took me the longest time to find it. My powerful telephoto lens saw nothing at first but a tangle of branches and greenery. Finally, a shadowy movement gave the bird away. I saw a large brown hawk-nosed bird well hidden in deep shadow. Only the bright blaze on its chest, visible when it sat up, made a contrast with its setting. The bird was tearing bite-size pieces out of some creature it held to the branch with its talons. I could not tell what its prey was. But I saw enough to determine that this was almost certainly not an Osprey but a Red-tailed Hawk.
After some time, the bird finished its brunch and came flying out of the cypress and landed on a bare tree directly in front of me. That removed the “almost.” This is a classic Red-tailed Hawk.
The sound track of my little video above reflects the voices of preschool kids having a fun time in the Native Plant Area. Ever since our Conservancy volunteers and the Parks landscape gardening contractors cleaned up the area, it has lost its fearsomeness and become a more welcoming place for people. At least three preschool groups were enjoying the setting. On a warm sunny day, the shade is precious. The children’s chitter-chatter didn’t disturb the birds in the slightest; it may even attract them because it’s so similar to the music the birds make. And the area offers some educational opportunities. For example, the children and their teachers learned that the bird wasn’t an osprey but a hawk. It would also help if the trees and major bushes had signs identifying what they were.
For the record, here is a photo of the Red-tailed Hawk, next to a photo of an Osprey.
They’re both big birds of prey with the hooked bill adapted for tearing. The outside of both their wings is dark brown. But the hawk has a brown head and neck, and a speckled brown lower belly, while the Osprey is white on the top of its head and white down its entire front, except for a slight brownish patch on the upper chest. Looking at their fronts, one is brown where the other is white and vice versa.
They are both big birds but the Osprey is bigger than the Red-tail, with a wingspan that can reach six feet, while the hawk’s wings generally stretch only about four feet. Female hawks are bigger than the males, but you’d have to see a pair side by side to tell the difference.
One of the surest ways to tell that the bird in the tree was not an Osprey is from its food. I could not tell exactly what its prey was, but clearly it was not a fish. Red-tails hunt and eat little mammals such as voles and mice by preference, and they sometimes take birds. Osprey, by contrast, are fish eaters. Some 99 percent of an Osprey’s diet is fish. Unlike Brown Pelicans, which plunge head first, Osprey dive into the water talons first. They may submerge completely. They have specialized toes that can grab slippery fish and carry them long distances in flight.
We see Red-tailed Hawks fairly often in Cesar Chavez Park. The sight of an Osprey here is rare by comparison.
Another park visitor told me that there was a second raptor active in the Native Plant Area as well, possibly a smaller one. I stayed behind and tried various viewpoints but did not see a second bird of this kind.
The next day I returned to the area. I first set up on the south side under some Monterey Pines, looking for sparrows. I had seen several White-crowned Sparrows yesterday but could not get a clear picture. As I waited I happened to glance up and saw the big hawk sitting quietly on a branch about twelve feet up almost directly over my head. It paid no attention as I moved my tripod to get a better angle. I took several close-ups and a short video. Then the bird turned, launched, and flew directly over my head to a spot behind me, where I lost it. It’s almost certainly the same bird as yesterday.